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Trump Administration To Reconsider Race-Based Special Education Quotas


Today the Trump administration plans to suspend last-minute Obama-era regulations that required states to set quotas for special-education services based on race, known as the “significant disproportionality” rule. Although the regulations became binding two days before the end of the Obama administration, they have not yet affected children because they required data collection and paper-pushing that states were to have completed this coming July. That’s a good thing, because if the rule went into effect its biggest victims were likely those who don’t need any more disadvantages: minority special-needs kids.

The initial rule was based on data showing African-American children are more likely to be identified as needing special education services than are kids from other racial groups, said Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who studies education policy. The Obama administration just assumed the reason for that was institutional racism, then rushed to force states to administer special-needs services according to race. If the feds found “significant disproportionality” — a term federal law does not define — among the percentages of kids of each race given special-education services, districts could have parts of their federal special education funding redirected.

The goal was to ensure “equality,” but according to a largely arbitrary standard — how much does anyone know about whether a kid needs special education just by knowing his or her race? Basically nothing. Saying it does is to engage in negative racial stereotyping.

Rather than putting a child’s individual needs first, under this system states and therefore schools would be pushed to assign kids special-education services such as tutoring or therapy based at least partly on the students’ race. The policy theory parallels Obama administration school discipline race quotas that left educators across the country decrying a rash of violence and other disruptive behavior especially inside schools and districts with higher minority populations.

Also, new research Eden thinks is of better quality has found that minority children are, on average, more likely to have their potential special needs ignored, rather than overidentified. In other words, at least for some kids, the problem is not that they are too often designated special needs, it’s that they are not designated such not enough. The key difference is, again, whether the individual child is in need of those additional services or not. That’s, again, not something his or her race can tell you, nor can the percentage of other kids in his or her state of the same race needing similar services.

The Penn State study Eden referred to, which came out last month and was published in a leading journal in the field, examined a large sample size of 400,000 U.S. students. It replicated earlier findings that “minority children are under-identified as disabled, despite being otherwise similar including in regards to academic and behavioral functioning” (emphasis added). A summary from Penn State is worth quoting at length:

In most prior studies, researchers concluded that minority children were being over-identified as disabled and suggested that schools may be using discriminatory identification practices. Concerns that minority children were being misidentified as disabled subsequently led to federal legislation and policies requiring U.S. schools to monitor the extent to which minority children are over-represented in special education.

However, the prior empirical work used to justify federal legislation and policies had largely not accounted for alternative explanations, including minority children’s well-known greater exposure to the risk factors for disability (e.g., poverty, low birthweight, lead exposure) that in turn would result in elevated likelihood of experiencing cognitive and behavioral impairments and attending academic and behavioral difficulties in school.

New work by Morgan and his colleagues, which better accounts for minority children’s greater risk factor exposure and experience of academic difficulties, repeatedly finds that minority children are less likely to be receiving special education services for identified disabilities.

This state of affairs for minority children parallels the general state of affairs in special education services, where children who need specific help are frequently denied it. Federal laws and regulations for people with disabilities have intended to help with this centuries-old problem, but often they actually make things worse. For one thing, they do that by requiring schools and parents to negotiate with an entire committee of people to both designate a child as needing disability services and then to negotiate what those services will be. Because school districts have to find a way to pay for it all they are at least financially motivated to find and meet the bare minimum for a child.

This situation, of having bureaucrats with other interests than the best service for the child in question all negotiate what he will get, “sets off a fundamentally adversarial relationship between student and family and school,” Eden said. “The student and family says ‘We need more,’ and the school has every incentive to say ‘We don’t think you need more.'”

This situation especially hurts families with fewer economic and social resources, Eden noted, because “You have a big advantage in these cases if you know a lawyer and say you’re going to call one than if you don’t even know which lawyer to call.” But even when families do pull their lawyers, often so do school districts, and the resulting years of negotiation tick by while the child may or may not be receiving optimal or even just appropriate treatment.

States have found a solution that realigns this adversarial relationship into a cooperative one. Twelve states allow parents of special-needs children to direct their child’s taxpayer funds to the therapies and treatments they think best. Thus parents come to a school district bringing resources rather than threatening to take some away, all in a willing exchange for the kind of services the parents think will best help their child.

It is difficult to measure the comparative results of such programs because “special needs” encompasses a very broad range of conditions with varying mitigation possibilities, but the research available finds these programs have high satisfaction rates, excellent financial management results, and comparable or better academic and therapeutic outcomes.

Telling a child he may or may not have special education based on his race or the percentage of kids of his race already accessing that kind of education is flat-out ridiculous. But that’s what we get when bureaucrats instead of parents control education.